Reaction: The Power of Unintended Consequences #49687

Warning, some philosophy may have unintentionally slipped into this post…

There are few things in life that ever really change; rather, we are held captive to what appears to be a surprisingly small set of rules that have lasted at least as long as writing seems to have been around, and—if the history of humanity described in writing is any guide—as long as humans have existed (regardless of your thoughts on that particular topic). One of them, for instance, is that there’s nothing truly new; take these few lines, for instance—

A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
—Ecclesiastes 1:4-10

Rule 11, anyone?

One of the various rules we encounter all the time, regardless of whether or not we recognize or acknowledge it, is the rule of unintended consequences. It doesn’t matter what you intend; what matters is the results. To give you a concrete example, the entire idea of the Internet of Things is to launch unlimited waves of goodness into the world. After all, isn’t it better to be able to see what’s in your refrigerator, rather than keeping a grocery list?

Maybe not, if the unintended consequence is an army of potentially millions of devices that can be used to launch a huge DDoS attack. To wit—

Hackers used an army of hijacked security cameras and video recorders to launch several massive internet attacks last week, prompting fresh concern about the vulnerability of millions of “smart” devices in homes and businesses connected to the internet. The assaults raised eyebrows among security experts both for their size and for the machines that made them happen. The attackers used as many as one million security cameras, digital video recorders and other infected devices to generate a flood of internet traffic that knocked their targets offline, security experts said. —Market Watch

This, dear reader, is the power of unintended consequences in a nutshell (as we like to say in the engineering world). The is/ought fallacy is not just a problem in logical reasoning; it’s also a problem that shows up in the way we actually live. Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. But far too often we do use this line of argument: we can think of a good reason to do this, so we should do it. In this thought process, we often—no, almost always—completely fail to think through what might happen.

To give another example, over in the “Worth Reading” section of this blog is a post pointing to an article about how we can wrap our lives around our digital devices quickly, and to the point that it takes hard work to separate ourselves from them. Perhaps humans are so “hard wired” for communication that we can’t stop ourselves if the means are available, such that the unintended consequence of making the means always available is that we so immerse ourselves in it as to lose our very humanness. Perhaps my major professor (Dr. Little) has a point in arguing for in person transactions whenever possible.

There is some point where I feel the need, in my own life, to stand athwart the path of history and yell, “stop!” Sometimes I feel like asking, “why do I care if this will make me a better engineer, when what I want to be is a better person?” Sometimes I just need to sit and read a book (the title of the section “60 books,” by the way, over on the left, is used as a challenge; the list isn’t really 60 books, but rather a challenge to read 60 books each year).

But before I wander too far afield, let me bring this rambling post back on point, if at least just a little. There’s probably no point in trying to “stop” the IoT. And there’s really no way to actually (or rather practically) secure this beast that I can see. Perhaps it will turn out that we have unleashed something on our world that cannot be controlled or contained in any rational way—and perhaps this lack of control will eventually cause us to abandon the IoT at some fundamental level.

Sometimes we unleash things in our world that cannot be contained or controlled in any rational way. Sometimes it takes a lot of pain and even—gasp!—inconvenience to undo the damage done.

But if there’s one other thing I know, it’s this: we will always forget the power of unintended consequences. Or rather, to paraphrase Santayana, those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.

We’re very good at forgetting.


  1. Greg Mirsky on 4 October 2016 at 3:52 pm

    Possibility of using these thingies to launch DDoS, IMHO, is rather “unforeseen” or “too easily dismissed” consequence. The former may be indication of lack of experience in connecting things to the Internet while the latter – what is the other politically correct definition of marketing? Years ago one operator suggested very simple test. Connect your newly designed box to the Internet and watch how long it will survive an attack. The fact that it will be attacked by hackers was not questioned by anyone in the audience.

    • Russ on 5 October 2016 at 7:50 pm

      Greg– exactly… Sometimes we should anticipate the consequences, but we either don’t want to (it would stop us doing what we want to do), or we’re too tied up in a vision of the future to believe anything bad could happen. There’s a place for the old guys who sit in the corner and shake their head “no,” from time to time… 🙂